Seal eating by walruses in the Bering and Chukchi Seas
Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) feed primarily on benthic invertebrates, but they are known to eat seals (Phocidae) occasionally, ostensibly when the benthic foods are unavailable. We investigated reports of a marked increase in occurrence of seal-eating walruses in the Bering Strait region in the late 1970's by examining stomach contents of animals taken in the spring harvests by Eskimos. We also obtained relevant information during visual surveys of marine mammals in the region. Our findings from the stomachs indicated that seal eating was 10 to 100 times more common during the 1970's and early 1980's (0.6–3.0%, N=645) than it had been in the previous three decades (0.07–0.20%, N=4015). In addition, we observed walruses in possession of seal remains in 1978 and 1979, where we had not seen such a phenomenon before in the previous 25 years. We attribute the increased predatory interaction between seals and walruses partly to a larger walrus population and, especially in 1979, to unusually restrictive spring ice conditions, which tended to cause greater than usual overlap of their distributions. Stomach contents of walruses taken in the Chukchi Sea in summer, where the ranges of walruses and seals overlap broadly in all years, have indicated a similarly high rate of occurrence of seal eaters (8.6% in the 1960's, N=35; 11.4% in 1983, N=44). As a whole, our findings indicate that most of the seal eating is predation, rather than scavenging of carrion. They also indicate that it is not rare or aberrant but common behavior, and that it could exert a significant impact on seal populations in some areas.